Tuesday, October 25, 2016

When I Come Back to Singapore One Day

Singapore at dusk

When I come back to Singapore one day, I don't want to stay in a fancy hotel or go shopping on Orchard Road.
What I really want to do is walk down the back street from my apartment to the grocery store early in the morning, right before the humidity rises from the sidewalk. I want to pass by the old man who waters the plants and says: "Hello girl." I want to go to the hairdresser where the owner never fails to greet me with a disapproving look: "Long time not beautiful already."
I want to walk outside thinking it will be cold because I am leaving a freezing cafe where Christmas music is playing but immediately be enveloped by waves of heat instead.
I want to eat kimchi and laksa and masala dhosai and dumplings at any time of the day without ever worrying about opening hours or whether it's lunch or dinner time.
I want to hear someone ask: "Is it?" when I say something they find surprising and know that it's a statement and not a question. I want to walk carefully, dodging lighted candles and random treats on the curb during Hungry Ghost season. I want to hand out oranges and red packets on Chinese New Year. I want to be offered a tiny little mooncake that looks like a jewel and still fail to fully appreciate the appeal.
I want to buy manga comics, jade charms, and tins of yu yee oil all from the same store.
I want to talk about the haze from Indonesia and the rate of construction work with a taxi driver. I want to hear him complain that young people complain too much. I want to hear jokes I don't quite get from the popular deejays on the radio station. I want to see the sun rise and set at the same hour every day of the year like clockwork. I never want to wear socks and I want linen to always be in season.
However, if my husband chooses to stay in a fancy hotel or go shopping on Orchard Road, I will naturally just grin and bear it.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Memorable Night at the Symphony

Victoria Concert Hall
Last night, as I listened to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra play Antonio Vivaldi's Four Seasons, I was once again a nine year old snowflake dancing on stage looking for my parents in the audience. Considering how nearsighted I was as a child, this was no easy feat. The music was the same, and yet so much more. An original program, directed by brilliant first violinist and concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich, presented each of the four seasons by Vivaldi followed by a magical composition of that same season by the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla. It was almost like Vivaldi and Piazzolla were having a riveting musical conversation that the audience by sheer luck was privy to. Yuzefovich's violin was pure beauty and the audience was literally on the edge of their seat listening with bated breath, afraid to miss a single note.
I admit to having a soft spot for Piazzolla but I was amazed at how his interpretation of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, something I had heard since childhood, made it something new, relevant and inspiring.
I am no longer that young ballerina wearing her very first pair of pointe ballet shoes but sometimes, when the music is perfect, I am reminded of her.

Monday, October 3, 2016

A Night with Lauren Bacall

About a lifetime ago, I worked in television. Well, Italian public television which is really in a league of its own. I was a producer/editor on a daily variety show and one of my duties was to take care of the foreign guests. The conductor, Paolo Limiti, loved old Hollywood stars so we had guests like Cyd Charisse, Sophia Loren, ect. When I heard Lauren Bacall was coming I was just as excited as everybody else. My colleague, Roger Mazzeo, and I were told to pick her up at her hotel one night and accompany her to a secret location. Her first question: "And what are you two doing here?" was a real ice breaker and when she saw the white limo that was specially ordered for her, she gasped: "I hate Bentleys, especially white ones." As we drove, she dished out the pleasantries: "Oh God, cobblestones... Tell me again, why are you two here and why on earth are you coming to dinner with me? Who are you?" Here, I was strongly tempted to put my philosophy degree to use (finally) and offer a possible existential answer but Roger who is very sweet tried to explain: "We work on the show and..." She bluntly cut him off with a rhetorical: "No, I mean, who ARE you? And where the hell are we going?" So that was the small talk sorted, then.
     At this point, we were further and further away. Each mile into the foggy Lombard countryside, a personal affront. The chauffeur whispered to me in Italian that we were going to a secluded dinner club open especially for us. I had a pretty strong feeling that this wasn't exactly the dream dinner location  a star like Bacall wanted to go to. "Why are we going so far?" she complained. Roger took the bait and innocently answered: "Because Paolo wants to give you a special treat?" "If he wanted to give me a special treat I wouldn't be sitting in a white stretch limo with you two driving to who the f@#k knows where!" She did have a point.
     Once there, she refused everything that was offered to her and asked the waiter (owner/good friend of Paolo): "A simple green salad? How hard is that to make?" Then, when Paolo told her about this delicious burrata that they sell in Milan, she replied: "Well, if it's so good, why didn't you buy one for me?"
     Since a big part of my job was to simultaneously translate, it was hard to stop especially since Paolo was happy for me to edit what he was saying, by adding little anecdotes, like: "He has the top rated variety show on television," or "He was just voted most popular Italian TV host." So we were both taken aback when she just turned towards me and ordered: "Will you PLEASE stop talking to me?" This was right after I mentioned that my brother had gone to an apartment viewing in the Dakota (where she lived in NY) and had mentioned what a beautiful building it was. "Why on earth would YOUR brother go to the Dakota?" I decided not to bring up the fact that he actually lived just a couple of blocks down.
     The restaurant's wall was covered with photos of actors like Sylvester Stallone or Sharon Stone posing with the owner so, when he came over to ask if she minded taking a picture with him, nobody was too surprised. But she was ready.  "Of course I won't take a picture with him. I know what these people are like. They'll put it on the wall so that it seems as though we are friends." (The week before Cyd Charisse had happily obliged). This was especially embarrassing since the owner was clearly a good friend of Paolo.  At this point, Paolo's assistant motioned to me to follow him to another room. "We have a small problem. Who knew Lauren Bacall would be such a iena (Italian for 'not so nice')? After dinner, we are going to need you to escort her out of the restaurant and act surprised by all the journalists and photographers waiting outside."
     I was pretty sure she wouldn't believe journalists had spontaneously followed us all the way to this secluded club on the outskirts of Milan. And it was raining. Oh good, maybe she would hit me over the head with an umbrella. She seemed to particularly have it in for me. I fell in that category of unimportant people. I could always tell the real stars, those were the ones who treated the 'unimportant' people well. Even though they didn't have to. Made me wish I was the daughter of an important film director she would some day be auditioning for. I could stand next to my Dad, the film director, as she was about to read her lines and say: "Remember me?"
    The week before, I had accompanied poor Cyd Charisse, a real trooper, to the bathroom in the TV studio. When she discovered it was a squat toilet, she merely said: "Oh, interesting." I didn't wait around to hear what Lauren Bacall said when I brought her into the same bathroom. In her defence, it was pretty grim and in true Italian bureaucratic spirit, this was a toilet that could only be opened by one special janitor we had had to look for and who arrived with an air of extreme importance as she indicated that she had the key to this 'special' toilet hanging from her neck.

P.S. The picture above is the way I like to remember Lauren Bacall.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Cultural Shape-Shifter in Singapore

That day you wake up and find out you have been called the cultural shape-shifter of a country.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Happy 51st Birthday, Singapore!!

And borrowing words from Jerry Maguire: "You had us at hello."

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Snapshots from a Summer Holiday

"I should have expected this..." -Rembrandt, original master of selfies (National Gallery, London)

"We can take him." (Arena di Verona)
"One day, this will all be yours." (Lungadige Verona)

Aperitivo with a view.

In Italy, these bathing suits qualify as scuba gear. (Gaeta, Italy)

Not sure this is the quickest way to get to Singapore but it's worth a shot.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Coffee, Anyone?

A Tale of Two Bars.
My father will only go to Bar Jolly, my brother Julian only to Bar Rialto. So when we are in Verona for the summer holidays, the seemingly simple choice of where to get one's morning cappuccino can have serious implications. Lines are drawn, alliances formed. It's like a play by Eugene O'Neill only with less potential for a happy outcome.
(In list above, Eliot clearly feeling the pressure already.)

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Fourth Graders Land in Sibu, Malaysia

Notwithstanding the fall from the bunk bed on the first night, the bloody nose from the errant volleyball, and the heat rash...seems like Eliot's very first school trip away from home was a smashing success!! True, the water had an unusual taste and air conditioning was high on the list of things missed by these Singapore kids but the biggest takeaway (apart from the sand that made its way home) was that you need to work together as a team, help one another, and be a risk taker. Oh, and if you pull too hard on the mosquito net covering the bed it will in fact land on your face.

P.S. My own first school trip away from home wasn't until high school and my Mom was not only one of the chaperones, but somehow my roommate as well. Good times. (Photos by Roxanne Walker).

"So you say we're going to boogie board..."

"Not so shabby..."

"It's a jungle out there."

"Best trip ever!"

"I'm alive!"-Ms. Roxanne Walker after four days in Malaysia with her class.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Writing a Book

Well, I finally found the perfect pencil. Now, all I need is a room of my own. And a plot would be good too.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

A Portrait of a Mom

An Audrey Hepburn meets Alice in Wonderland type of Mom.
The kind who believes in fairy tales and the magic of snow. The kind voted best dressed in high school but who also bought her own presents as a child so she would have something to unwrap on Christmas day. The kind who made every holiday a special event with baked cakes, basted turkeys, and pine cone decorated trees. The kind who always made hot chocolate and sent you on trips with a little extra money and a note to read later.
The kind who made motherhood seem like a cinch: whipping up impromptu meals for large groups of people, wrapping up presents at the speed of light, dressing up to go out leaving behind a faint scent of Chanel n.5. The kind who has her grandchildren call her Bronte, who is impossible to say goodbye to on the phone, who suggests Witch Hazel or Bengay (sometimes both) as a solution to most problems.
The kind who greets disparate news with the exact same wide-eyed look of disbelief: "You're moving to Singapore?" "You're not wearing a scarf?" "You're cooking?"
Not always the best organizer: "But Signora, the bus you chartered to bring the group to the airport has less seats than people...Isn't that a map of San Francisco? I thought we were going to New York...We've been assigned to sleep in rooms with random people. " (Good news for some, less for others.)
Not always the best at boosting confidence: "Don't worry, you'll be beautiful at sixteen. What's that? You are sixteen. Well, that's odd. Fingers crossed for seventeen."
Not always the most discerning: "If you're not going to eat that perfectly fine piece of cheese on your hospital tray, I will."
Not always the most trustworthy: "Purple corduroy is all the rage. Your friends will be jealous."
Not always the most reliable: "Childbirth? A cakewalk. You were born before I knew it."
Not always conventional : Mom, isn't it 4 am where you are? "Yeah, I just felt like chatting."
But always, no matter what...our biggest fan. Thank you, Mom.
Happy Mother's Day.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Ten Things I Learned at My Son's Swim Meet

Dragons Den 2016, UWCSEA EAST 

Over the weekend, I watched my son compete in Dragons Den, a yearly International Swim Meet held at UWCSEA EAST with swimmers coming as faraway as Thailand and Japan. As expected, the swimming was unbelievable, the coaches amazing, and the spirit second to none. However, as I sat nine hours straight under the sun each day, there were a few things I learned. Mostly about myself.

1) Watching a swim meet in Singapore is the closest I will ever come to participating in an extreme sport.
2) Singapore swim meets are grueling, stamina building, heatstroke defying tests of endurance...and the swimmers have it pretty tough as well.
3) Like real estate, location is key. If possible, avoid sitting behind the guy with the whistle or microphone. Likewise, the overzealous mom who sounds like she wishes she were in the pool swimming alongside her child.
4) Bring an advil. At some point, you will need one.
5) After sitting for so many hours on a metal bleacher, you will lose all feeling in the bottom half of your body.
6) Thanks to the humidity, your hair will frizz to new heights and your clothes will stick not only to you but to the person next to you.
7) Bringing a newspaper to the meet, may have sounded like a good idea at some point.
8) Only wear suede shoes and sit ringside at a pool, if you want to test how good you are at anger management.
9) Jump up to cheer only if you don't have a cup of very hot coffee in your hand.
10) You are watching some of the best young swimmers in South East Asia, some are even headed to the Olympic trials. So sit back and enjoy yourself. Just remember there are no backs on bleachers.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Things We Remember

I remember moving to Verona from South Carolina. Having a southern accent, not liking the taste of Italian milk, or the different way meat was cooked. Not seeing well but nobody noticing I needed glasses.
Spending recess alone at the school library reading. Not being allowed to go on sleepovers.
Watching the series "Roots" in the darkened cafeteria while it snowed outside.
Going home after school and reading instead of doing homework. Always reading. I remember walking to drama class on my own and an old man sticking out his tongue at me in a strange way.
I remember walking home in the dark to a warm house with delicious smells coming from the kitchen.
I remember creating a makeshift post office in the house and writing all of the letters myself. Hearing arguments because my older brother wanted a vespa and my parents didn't want him to have one. The sound of a piano playing all afternoon. My great aunts laughing at one of my stories.
Now that I have a daughter who is the same age I was then, I wonder what she will remember? Will it be the apple slices I put every day in her lunch box? The goodbye hugs before boarding the bus, the ride to school sitting next to her big brother? The evening I mentioned I was home cooking dinner instead of being at a fancy movie gala sipping champagne and she answered, without missing a beat, that that was my choice. The quick wittedness of which I begrudgingly admired, wishing I had been so logical as a child.
Or will her deepest memories have nothing at all to do with me. After all, what are apple slices and hugs when compared to being chosen for a school team, invited to a party, or told someone has a crush on you.
What I do know is that as I cut the apples, tie the pony tails, and listen to the science reports, I am the one who is already reminiscing, looking back on these days, and feeling, what the poet Jorge Luis Borges called, nostalgia for the present.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

When Visitors Come to Singapore

Yes, the sun rises and sets the same time all year round in Singapore.
My brother Stephen and his family just returned to London after a whirlwind vacation here in Singapore. Although when you're travelling with three small boys, I think the appropriate term is "working holiday'" and not vacation. Now that the house is silent and we can put the good china out again (just joking...that was the good china), here are some things I noticed visitors do when coming to Singapore.

1) They spend a lot of time either at the pool or talking about how they could be at the pool.
2) They think visiting temples in the midday sun is an acceptable plan.
3) They question the quality of jade souvenirs bought in Chinatown.
4) They are happy it's so sunny outside. Even when they are outside.
5) They go to Sentosa. A lot. Definitely more than is recommended.
6) They research and visit places you have yet to go to: Artscience museum, for example. This might make a lesser person feel guilty. I am not that person. Especially if they take the kids with them.
7) They spend 9 hours at the zoo. In fairness, the Singapore zoo is very cool and the only zoo I know of that doesn't keep the animals in cages. Still, 9 hours! Then again, this could be just my brother known for his freakish stamina on very few hours of sleep. I don't think my own kids have ever been out that long in one day. When spending the day out with Stephen, a medical certificate or basic training is advisable.
8) They drink a lot of coffee but not nearly as much water. The concept of dehydration in the tropics hasn't really sunk in.
9) They appreciate a good masala dhosai breakfast in Little India. Even if the place looks a bit dodgy.
10) Upon arrival, the humidity doesn't wreak as much havoc with their hair as you would expect, nor the jetlag with their mood, but that could be from the elation at having survived a 13 hour flight with a toddler.

We miss you guys!

Breakfast with the Orangutans...just the beginning.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Some Impressions on Myanmar: the Country Formerly Known as Burma

Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out in the Midday Sun

1) If you live in Singapore, seeking respite from the heat in Myanmar is not a great idea as it is roughly 40 degrees celsius there. And April is the hottest month. Something to think about when planning Spring break.

2) When visiting pagodas, go in the early morning or late afternoon as you need to remove shoes and socks. Those black tiles are unforgiving on the bare soles of your feet. Unless you are auditioning for a Bollywood movie, jumping up and down is not an attractive look.

3) Public buses do not have air conditioning and the number of occupants allowed is more of a recommendation than a legal requirement. On the upside, when it comes time for the driver to signal for a turn, that extra person nearly flying out the passenger seat with flailing arms comes in handy.

4) It's hard to make definite plans as traffic can be atrocious. I'll see you in twenty minutes can easily turn into two hours. Useful when gauging the strength of relationships, less so when making dinner reservations.

5) Now that the military junta has been officially disbanded, the country is optimistically being led to democracy by Aung San Suu Kyi, finally freed from house arrest. The hope is that while allowing for much needed foreign investment, beautiful Myanmar keeps its traditions and landmarks. Resisting, for example, the temptation to surround the spectacular Schwedagon Pagoda (pictured above) with modern condos boasting a temple view.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Burmese Days. In the footsteps of George Orwell.

Schwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

Young monk at the pagoda

Colonial look in Yangon, former capital of Myanmar

One of the many shrines to Buddha

Saturday, February 20, 2016

How To Lose 10 Kgs in 1 Hour in Singapore...Bubble Soccer!

"Oh no...here she comes!"
"Way better than normal soccer."
"I never sweated so much in my life."

Some friends say I'm not the adventurous type. As if eating my own cooking isn't adventurous enough...So tired of all the mocking, this weekend I threw caution to the wind and consulted http://sg.funzing.com/ a brand new start-up here in Singapore, highly recommended by a friend. It's kind of like Uber but for hobbies and activities. Word of warning: if you let your 14 year old son choose you might end up with something called Bubble Soccer, simply put there is no quicker way to lose weight in the tropics. And heat stroke is a distinct possibility. Then again, it's Singapore...you could get heat stroke walking to the grocery store. And if you let your son do the bubble soccer along with seven of his pals, you can grab a coffee and watch. They will thank you profusely as they change out of their sweat drenched shirts and you will have the perfect excuse to choose the wine tasting instead. Win-win.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

It's Never Too Late...To Have Your Child Live Out Your Dreams

Eliot with wonderful Head Coach Amy Brooks
Ever since I watched as a kid old footage of a young Nadia Comaneci score a perfect 10 at the Olympics, I have been fascinated by gymnastics. In fact, it has been a secret passion of mine. So it was with joy and trepidation that I watched my daughter try out for the team at her new school. From the moment she donned her outfit, she was hooked. And her passion and confidence (not just in gymnastics but in all areas) has soared. She may not be the next Comaneci but a Mom can dream...

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Moving to Singapore?

It's a jungle out there!
(Warning: this blog post contains useful information.)

Many people write to me asking for advice before making the big move to Singapore. One of their biggest worries (rightly so) is where to live. High rise condo vs. landed house? East Coast vs. Sentosa? Since this is clearly one of the most important factors determining your entire stay, my advice is speak to an expert. My mom is pretty good but since she lives in Italy, I would advise you seek the next best thing: Greyloft: https://www.greyloft.com/
Unlike other real estate agencies, Greyloft doesn't just list properties but provides an end to end, bespoke service...in lay terms, they literally hold your hand through what can be a very emotional and stressful time. They even know where to eat killer dumplings between property views. That's the type of inside information I am looking for.
So, good luck and happy househunting!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

How To Build a Reputation

Is this Mental Math?
Against my better judgement and with the hope of not reliving too many childhood traumas, this morning I attended the Math workshare Eliot's fourth grade class was holding for parents. The very first classmate I met looked surprised to see me: "Eliot told us you didn't want to come because you're not good in Math..." Word gets around fast I see.
Where's Shakespeare when you need him?

Monday, January 18, 2016

Distance is a State of Mind

Last night, my little brother Julian played a sold out concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City. I wasn't there...but it really felt like I was. (juliangargiulo.com)

As expats, we don't think of distance in strictly geographical terms, by necessity we come to see distance as a mental state of mind. Often sad about the weddings, the baptisms, the graduations we are forced to miss, we eventually discover with surprise things we would never have realized had we not moved away in the first place: a closeness with our adult siblings that we never had when we lived under the same roof. A stronger desire to spend time with our parents than those people who live just down the street from theirs. We have the ability to gauge with newfound clarity old friendships, the ones we had since we were kids. Are they based on something more than sharing the same zip code? Distance helps one gain perspective and appreciation. And that is not something you can just buy with air miles.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Way Back When

I Vitelloni
I just got this photo from my Dad (the man on the right wearing a beret) who attended last weekend the 80th surprise birthday party of his childhood friend Pierino (pictured in the center). On the far left, is his best friend Giancarlo, a philosopher and lover of books who lauded Somerset Maugham and the importance of eating pizza while still hot. This photo reminds me of Federico Fellini's masterpiece, I Vitelloni, which details one year in the life of five adolescents who pass their days dreaming of escaping life in a small seaside town. The story is semi-autobiographical and the only one who ends up leaving is Fellini himself who becomes a famous director in Rome. Like Fellini, my Dad was the only one of his friends who left his childhood home. A reality shared by expats who eventually come to the bittersweet realization that while you can never go home again... old friends are there when you do.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Haircut


Santa Claus brought Eliot the entire Gilmore Girls for Christmas. The popular TV series features the brainy and beautiful Rory Gilmore (pictured above on Alexander's phone screen). After watching about ten episodes, Eliot has her heart set on two things: going to Harvard and Rory's hairstyle. We decide to focus on the one that doesn't involve the $60.000 yearly tuition. Since her Dad is in charge of all things styling (he is the 100% Italian parent), the two go shopping to find the perfect Rory-like headband. After a walk down Orchard boulevard which involves entering multiple shops (full disclosure: I would have given up after the first shop, hence not the real shopper of the family) success! He then takes it a step further, by booking an appointment to achieve the actual look.
Fast forward to the next day and Eliot misses her hair, Not in an understated way, she really misses it. This morning, as we wait for the lift, just one refrain: "I want my hair back."
Her Dad? Oh, he's on a business trip to China...